Op-ed | No Borders in Space
From space, no political borders or boundaries are visible. The Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land masses are subject to common geophysical forces, and human-induced effects are confronting the whole globe. Looking beyond our home planet, the Moon, the planets of our solar system, and the cosmos beyond beckon us and hold the dreams of all humanity. No one nation or group of nations can claim sovereignty over the “High Frontier” of space.
Despite existential human dependence on the Sun in so many ways, no proprietary claim by anyone on Earth can—or ever will— be established as to ownership of our nearest stellar neighbor. As our parent star becomes more active after a nearly three-year activity slumber, we also know that the massive solar storms that lie ahead of us for the upcoming several sunspot-cycle years will not respect any geographic boundaries or political borders. Space weather—as it is called by researchers—will wreak havoc on many bulk electric power grids, communication systems, airline travel, spacecraft remote sensing systems, and global navigation tools. This will happen irrespective of which countries or private companies control these human infrastructural elements.
The United States has been a leader in studying the Sun and understanding the physics of space weather. But to uncover all of the dangers and societal implications of solar storms is a massive undertaking. Given the worldwide consequences of the most severe space weather events, it should be a collective effort of humanity to understand every aspect of space weather and to forecast to the very best of our ability where, when, and how such devastating events will occur.
The U.S., under the aegis of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), is about to embark on a new 10-year plan for understanding the connected Sun-Earth system. This so-called “Decadal Survey” for the years 2024-2033 will lay out high-priority science objectives in space physics for NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and key parts of the Department of Defense (DoD). Observing and forecasting major space weather phenomena with high accuracy will be a fundamental Decadal Survey imperative.
It is high time that the space weather component of the Decadal Survey be undertaken, not for one nation but on behalf of all of humankind. No longer can—or should—any one nation such as the United States go it alone for such an important matter for all of the Earth’s inhabitants. I would express the belief that the U.S. National Academies, along with key agencies such as NASA, should immediately commit to bringing spacefaring agencies from around the world into planning the next decade’s assault on unraveling mysteries of our Sun and its space weather consequences.
The “Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow” (PROSWIFT) Act was passed by both houses of Congress in 2020. The bill was signed into law by the president in October of that same year. But to date, no explicit funding has been requested by government agencies, and no appropriations have been forthcoming from Congress to make PROSWIFT the effective program it needs to be.
Broadly speaking, the entire discipline of solar and space physics (“Heliophysics”) needs to be considered as a field of all-encompassing human endeavor. Collectively, the space agencies of all nations need to plan together how to understand the most important star in the cosmos—our Sun—and also the most important world in that cosmos—our home planet Earth.
Daniel N. Baker, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of planetary and space physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.